A Weekend in Colorado’s San Juan Backcountry

backcountry skiing

Hank Shell

As it turns out, it’s not very easy to ski while carrying two large paper bags full of food for your hut trip.

I was well on my way to figuring this out as I stepped into my skis at the base of Lift 4 at Telluride Ski Resort.

“You want a trash bag for that, man?” my friend John chuckled, eying the two bags awkwardly clutched along with ski pole in my right hand.

I had just met five friends at the base of the mountain to begin a three-day hut trip in Colorado’s San Juan backcountry.

The plan – make our way to the top of Lift 12, enter the backcountry access gate on Prospect Ridge, and ski in to the adjacent Alta Lakes area, where we’d rendezvous with another group for a few days of prime <a href=” https://foreverfitscience.com//get-shape-backcountry-ski-touring/”>backcountry skiing</a>.

I was on meal prep for the first evening and had brought a couple loaves of bread that I’d baked that morning.

Watching the swelling snow clouds above, I realized that I did, in fact, need a trash bag – the flimsy paper handles on each bag were beginning to look especially fragile.

Besides, soggy bread would be unacceptable.

I hobbled into the nearest ski shop, secured a nice, voluminous trash bag, and we were off.

As I would soon learn, skiing with one large trash bag full of food in your hand isn’t very easy, either.

Alta Lakes is one of two backcountry areas accessible through Telluride Ski Resort, the other being the Bear Creek drainage.

It is, however, the only one with a backcountry hut.

The Observatory at Alta Lakes, as it’s known, is one of the premier backcountry “huts” in the lower 48. Accessible only by ski or snowmobile in the winter, the Observatory is a prime base camp for exploring some of the North San Juan Mountains’ best backcountry skiing, and most of it is right outside the front door.

The snow was falling heavier as we descended from the top of Lift 12 to the gate.

To our left, the maw of Palmyra Peak’s ridgeline had disappeared into a low ceiling of snow clouds.

Ahead of us, the ridge dropped away into the Alta Lakes basin.

A good three inches had fallen on the ridge, and much more snow was expected through the night.

With the white room descended upon us, we switched on our avalanche transceivers, I clutched my trash bag of rations tight, and we descended one by one through Evergreen and Aspen glades into the basin.


Skiing Alta Lakes 

Dinner went off without a hitch on our first night in the hut, and we spent much of the evening with a giddy eye on the constant snowfall outside.

Much to our delight, we awoke to bluebird skies and a foot or so of fresh snow the following morning.

Eager to make fresh tracks, we inhaled our breakfast, gathered up our gear and assembled outside the hut.

It’s important to note that fresh snow is cause for both elation and caution in the backcountry.

Cognizant that a new load had been added to what was already a mildly unstable snowpack, we decided to ski conservatively.

The rocky escarpments enclosing the basin rose up like stony citadel walls before us as we skinned upward, single-file, from the hut.

We made our way along a low-angle ridge toward a prominent knoll from which we’d decided to ski back to the cabin. Above the knoll, the Silver and Birthday chutes – long, near-vertical funnels of snow – scored the cliff line from top to bottom. While legendary features for skiing, we’d decided the recent snow had rendered the chutes too avalanche prone for a descent and decided to spend the day skiing from the knoll.

The leader’s skis punched easily through the downy snow, and we made the knoll quickly. Once regrouped atop the hill, we took a moment to survey our surroundings. It was nearing 8:30 a.m. To our right, high on Prospect Ridge, the ant-like caricature of a Telluride ski patroller ascended toward the summit of Palmyra. It wasn’t long before the muffled thud of an explosion rolled across the ridge and into Alta Lakes basin.

Ski patrol was conducting avalanche mitigation on Palmyra. We wondered aloud whether the percussion from such a blast could wake the fickle snowpack on our side of the ridge.


A word on avalanches

In the backcountry, avalanches are a treacherous foe and given to caprice.

Slides come in many forms and are subject to a multitude of triggers, both human and not. On this particular day, our primary concerns were wind and storm slab avalanches. Wind slab avalanches can occur when large caches of wind-deposited snow destabilize a weak snowpack beneath. The added load can compromise the integrity of the underlying snowpack. Given a trigger, a weak layer in the snow can fracture, sending the whole slope sliding downward.

Storm slab avalanches are similar in that a large amount of snowfall in a relatively short period of time can load the existing snowpack with a new “slab.”

Existing weak layers in the snow may be more prone to triggers, and all the new snow may equal a much larger avalanche.

Perhaps the most alarming characteristic of slab avalanches is their ability to be remotely triggered. The nature of snow is such that a weak layer of snow i.e. one that is poorly bonded to the surrounding layers, can fracture and propagate. By propagate, I mean spread, and spread like wildfire they can. One turn can cause a layer to break, and that crack can run across a mountainside in a matter of seconds. Once a slab avalanche breaks, it has the potential to “step down” to lower layers, which can mean exponential growth in a matter of seconds.

This is why slab avalanches are often considered the most dangerous.

Though you may be confident that you’re in no position to trigger an avalanche, it’s important to be aware of other triggers on the scene, whether they be another party, rock fall, or in our case, the remote detonation of explosives.

And so, with this in mind, we listened to the explosions roll over the ridge.

After a few minutes of observation, we decided the explosions were probably too far away to remotely trigger an avalanche above us. One by one, we stripped our skis of their skins, stepped into our bindings, and set off down the hill.


Fresh tracks

Skiing is one of those activities that afford us moments of such sublime detachment, such perfect simplicity, that the byzantine complexity of daily life is pared down to an immediate sensation, an enthralling experience outside of which nothing else exists.

In these moments, when the mind is utterly still, it’s the body that interprets reality. A sweep of the arm, a shift in pressure from right foot to left – each subtle movement is its own declaration of our existence, an expression of pure joy.

It was in this way that I descended from the knoll – with a mind empty of thought and full of color.

Needless to say, the snow was amazing.

My skis planed fluidly through the deep snow and, bobbing and surfacing through each turn, I had the sensation of floating atop a sea of crystalline white.

It’s the inimitable feeling that keeps countless skiers chasing storms throughout the winter season.

One by one, we surfed our way down the undulating hills and through stands of evergreen back to the hut, stopping every couple hundred yards to regroup.

We spent the weekend skinning to the knoll and a few other low-angle slopes in the basin, farming the pow and basking in our good fortune.

We eyed the steep Birthday Chutes with hungry eyes each morning, even going so far as to dig a snow pit at the base of one of the chutes, conducting tests for snowpack stability.

Alas, the conditions remained too dangerous to ski any of the nearby chutes for the duration of the trip.

Despite the minor setback, at the end of the day, backcountry skiing is more about having fun, staying safe and getting back home.

Based on those three conditions, the trip was a complete success.


If you go

At 11,300 feet, the Observatory at Alta Lakes is one of the highest homes in the country.

Anyone traveling to the Observatory should be aware of the effects of altitude and familiar with the signs and symptoms of altitude symptoms.

The hut is available for rent year-round, though its popularity in the winter months requires a little planning.

It’s a good idea to make your reservations well in advance.

The hut includes most modern amenities and a few extras, including a full kitchen with range top, hot tub and sauna.

For more information or to make a reservation, visit <a href=”http://www.altalakes.com”>altalakes.com</a>.

To explore some of the other backcountry huts in Colorado’s San Juans, visit <a href=”http://www.sanjuanhuts.com”>sanjuanhuts.com</a>.

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